Departing Mass General president on preserving hospital's culture, setting new benchmarks

Peter Slavin, MD — who is leaving Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital after 18 years as president — said he is proud of his organization's work during the COVID-19 pandemic and sees culture as one of the most crucial aspects for it to preserve moving forward.

Before becoming president of Massachusetts General, he served as chairman and CEO of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization from 1999-2002. He is a former president of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and was a senior vice president and CMO of Massachusetts General. 

Dr. Slavin said he plans to leave once his successor is in place.

He told Becker's Hospital Review it seems like this was the right time to make that transition for his own sake and for the hospital.

"I'm not planning on retiring. I do plan to remain active, but at this point I have no idea what form that will take," he said. "I'm excited for the first time in a long time, having a blank dance card and being able to think deliberately about how to fill it in a way I'll find most satisfying."

He shared his reasoning for stepping down as president, discussed achievements during his tenure and offered some advice for his successor and peers.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What prompted your decision to leave? Why now? 

Dr. Peter Slavin: From a hospital standpoint, I've been in this role 18 years. I'm not going to be able to do it forever. At some point, I was going to have to step away from this, and I thought there were some long-term initiatives at the hospital that were just getting off the ground — the public phase of a capital campaign, a great new clinical building we've been planning. It would probably make more sense for a new person, a new captain to take those and see them through to completion. I thought at this sort of crossroads in the hospital's history, that would make sense. 

From my own standpoint, I'm 63 years old, and if I am going to do something different, I probably should start exploring that sooner rather than later. Options may become more limited as time goes on. 

Q: Massachusetts General Hospital's parent company, Boston-based Mass General Brigham, is rebranding from Partners HealthCare, and said the move was part of a strategy for the health system to work more cohesively. How did the Mass General Brigham rebrand and the pandemic shape your decision to leave? 

PS: I might have done this a little sooner had it not been for the fact we were in our second COVID-19 surge, and I didn't think it was the right time to announce it to the hospital community, so I waited until the numbers were down quite a bit. 

In terms of the rebranding and some of the other new strategic directions of our health system, those are all things I've been involved in, supportive of. Seeing those things through to completion — the more significant integration of our health system — seemed like a long-term undertaking, and it would perhaps be better for somebody who could see those to completion be in place.  

Q: What lessons have you learned during the pandemic? How has it changed your leadership strategy?

PS: I don't think it's changed my leadership strategy, but it has certainly presented us with challenges we never could have imagined. I've been so proud to be part of this organization, but never prouder than over the past year. The courage, the determination, the innovation and the speed of execution I've witnessed has been breathtaking. It's been both horrible to see so much death, suffering, isolation, fear, but it's also been inspirational to see so much courage, determination, ingenuity. I hope in the long term I'll remember those latter qualities more than the former. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Mass General? 

PS: The most precious asset Mass General has is its culture. I was exposed to it when I first came as a medical student at Harvard Medical School. A culture where people are riveted on the needs of every patient, work very collaboratively with one another to meet those needs and look for ways always to get better. 

I'm about to pass on an institution that still very much has that special culture, that special quality. There are certainly lots of forces in healthcare these days that potentially put cultures like that at risk. I'm proud of the fact that I think it's in reasonable shape and hopefully will be long into the future. 

Mass General also is well-known for its clinical care, its research program. What I've tried to do during my tenure is embellish upon some aspects of the hospital that were not well known, or maybe underdeveloped — our commitment to the community, our commitment to social justice and equity. Those are things I have deliberately tried to build on. We've made progress, and there's more that needs to be made. I'm proud, for example, that the incoming class of residents we'll be welcoming over the summer, 26 percent of them, are underrepresented in medicine. That's a new benchmark for us that we're excited about and hopefully will serve as a floor for the future diversity of our trainees.  

Q: What advice will you pass along to your successor? 

PS: Don't let anybody stamp out that culture and keep looking for ways to reenforce it, strengthen it. I think that will be maybe the most important piece of advice. 

The second is there's an enormous amount of talented people in the organization, and helping their great ideas come to fruition has been great for me, and also, I think it's been helpful to the hospital. 

Q: What advice do you have for other hospital leaders? 

PS: I'm a strong believer in the importance of the fundamentals of management. At the core of my job, the two most important things I did was to make sure we took the best care of our patients as possible and at the same time took the best care possible of our staff. I think a lot of people in healthcare management get caught up in the latest healthcare trends, and they often get so distracted by those things that they lose sight of the fundamentals and take their eye off hitting it out of the park every day and caring for patients and looking for ways to make the work environment as positive as possible for the workforce. I think if you do those two things, the organization is likely to be successful, and more importantly, the organization is likely to advance its mission more than you can imagine. 


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